Hips Don’t Lie

 

 

Remember Devin Mesoraco?

C’mon, surely you remember him. Big guy, played catcher for the Reds back in 2014? He made the National League All-Star team that year, and he ended up with one of the best seasons ever posted by a catcher in franchise history: .273/.359/.534, 25 homers, .387 wOBA, 146 wRC+, 4.5 WAR.

Yeah, I miss that guy. Whatever happened to Mesoraco? Is he coming back?

Well, of course you know that Mesoraco signed a 4-year, $28 million extension after that great season, and though he’s been on the roster ever since, we’ve never seen the same guy. Since the end of 2014, the player wearing Mesoraco’s uniform has played in only 37 games, hitting .161/.255/.207. No home runs. An OPS+ of 27, which is unimaginably bad.

Yes, he’s been hurt, and that’s really the story here. Mesoraco suffered a left hip impingement last spring. He wasn’t able to play catcher after April 12, but the Reds kept him on the big league roster for another six weeks. Then they sent him to AAA Louisville for a little while, on the pretense that they were going to teach him to play left field. Finally, on June 29—two-and-a-half months after it was determined that the injury was severe enough to prevent the catcher from actually catching—Mesoraco underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and remove a spur.

This year, Mesoraco was back on the Opening Day roster, but has only started in 11 of Cincinnati’s first 19 games (he’s appeared as a pinch hitter in three more), and the old Mesoraco has yet to return. His 2016 slash line: .143/.234/.167; his wOBA is .194, and his wRC+ is 11. (Ed’s note: Mesoraco went 1-4 from the plate in last night’s loss to the Mets, which is actually an improvement. All other stats in this piece were recorded before Monday night’s game.)

Time for some caveats! First, Mesoraco is clearly not completely healthy yet. At least twice already in this young season, the Reds have publicly admitted that Mesoraco was unavailable to play because of soreness in that hip.* Second, we’re talking about the smallest of small samples. Mesoraco only has 47 plate appearances this season.

*The fact that Mesoraco is still not completely healthy is a problem that can be blamed entirely on Reds management. If the Reds had required Mesoraco to undergo surgery in early May, for example—instead of keeping him around on the roster to get some pinch-hit and DH at-bats—rather than late June, he would have had a couple of extra months to recover before reporting to spring training.

For the record, I’m not suggesting that Reds fans should give up hope that Mesoraco will again be productive. That would be silly, indeed. There’s plenty of reason to believe we’ll see something approximating the old Mesoraco very soon. Devin is just 27 years old, and though he has been bad at the plate, we’re only talking about 98 plate appearances over two injury-riddled seasons.

Plus—with the same caveats regarding small sample sizes—the advanced numbers don’t look bad in some respects. Mesoraco’s walk rate so far in 2016 is 10.6%, which is slightly better than even his 2014 rate; he’s drawn five bases on balls while striking out just seven times. Mesoraco’s BABIP is just .171, which is far below both his 2014 (.309) and career (.264) BABIP. As Mesoraco gets fully healthy and plays more, it’s not unreasonable to expect that number to rise substantially, with his other numbers rising similarly.

The biggest thing that I can see is that Mesoraco is hitting the ball on the ground more than he did in his breakout season; his GB/FB ratio is 1.55 this year, compared to 0.80 in 2014. Fully 48.6% of his batted balls are grounders; that number was 34.2% two years ago. (Consequently, Mesoraco’s fly ball percentage is down to 31.4% from 43%.)

Related: take a look at this chart. It displays the percentage of balls Mesoraco has put in play that were classified as hit with soft, medium, and hard speed.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 10.31.28 AM

He’s clearly not hitting the ball as hard this season, which is one explanation for the drop in BABIP.*

*REMEMBER: THESE ARE SMALL SAMPLE SIZES!

I hate even talking about these 2016 stats as if they mean something. Clearly, it’s a snapshot of what has happened, but it’s a fool’s errand to try to determine whether these numbers actually mean anything yet. We won’t know whether Mesoraco is back to being Mesoraco for quite some time.

And what does that even mean? There was already a pretty good chance, injury or no injury, that Mesoraco was never going to repeat his incredible production from 2014. Remember, only two catchers (Johnny Bench, Ernie Lombardi) in the long, storied history of this franchise have ever had better seasons than that one (although Bench had at least seven seasons that were better offensively). The ZiPS projection system is not optimistic about Mesoraco, predicting a .230/.310/.389 slash line this season.

That seems incredibly pessimistic; I fully expect Mesoraco—if he’s healthy—to be an above-average major league hitter again. Perhaps not an All-Star, perhaps not a middle of the order hitter, but he’ll be productive. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I think that’s reasonable.

What I do wonder is whether Mesoraco is going to be able to catch 110-120 games in a season ever again. That’s the real question here, in my opinion, and no one outside the organization really has anything approximating an answer. If the hip continues to be an issue, at some point the powers that be will have to discuss whether it makes sense to shift him to a different position. But where can he go? Athletically, he’s not Craig Biggio or Dale Murphy, so second base or center field aren’t options (although the thought of Mesoraco at either of those positions brings a smile to my face; that would be ugly and hilarious all at the same time). Johnny Bench played a little third base at the end of his career, but not very well. I can’t imagine left field is a possibility for Mesoraco, and last year’s experiment doesn’t give much hope.

The logical landing spot for a catcher who can’t catch anymore is first base. You will note that the Reds already have a first baseman.* So that isn’t an option, at least not with this club.

*Some guy named Joey Votto.

All of which means the Reds have to hope that Mesoraco’s hip gets healthy and that he can sustain the punishment of catching 100+ big league games. His bat should come around and, at any rate, the Reds aren’t losing anything by allowing Mesoraco to work out his hitting problems at the major league level. It isn’t like the Reds are going to be a playoff team in 2016.

But if the Reds hope to be a playoff team in 2018, they could really use some version of the Devin Mesoraco they thought they’d have after that brilliant 2014 campaign.

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Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

 

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